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Miami-Dade Squanders Transit Tax on Roads, Thanks to Florida DOT

Does this look like a transit project to you? Some of Miami-Dade's transit tax will fund grade separation so cars don't have to stop at intersections. Image: ##http://www.apcte.com/projects.php?cat=4&pro=34##APCT Engineers##

Does this look like a transit project to you? Some of Miami-Dade’s transit tax will fund grade separation so cars don’t have to stop at intersections. Image: APCT Engineers

Only one of every five federal transportation dollars are set aside specifically for transit. So it’s infuriating when a local government plunders the small pool of transit funds and spends it on roads. Particularly when that place has some of the country’s most notoriously car-dominated and dangerous streets.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Miami-Dade County, Florida. In 2002, voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund the People’s Transportation Plan, an ambitious agenda including 88 new miles of Metrorail and 635 new buses. It was all to be overseen by a Citizen’s Independent Transportation Trust.

Transit activist Marta Viciedo says Miami-Dade's failure to build transit has its origin in the very law that was supposed to expand rail. Photo:  ##http://ourcitythoughts.org/reviews/qa-with-marta-viciedo/##Our City Thoughts##

Transit activist Marta Viciedo says Miami-Dade’s failure to build transit has its origin in the very law that was supposed to expand rail. Photo: Our City Thoughts

Unfortunately, the way the legislation was written left far too much room to deviate from the transit message that was sold to voters. The county “didn’t emphasize that there would be any roadway or street improvement,” said Marta Viciedo, chair of the local Transit Action Committee, TrAC. “They had over 80 public meetings with the transportation plan. They really built this hype around Metrorail expansion.” But by slipping “roadway improvements” into the bill, they cleared the way for the half-cent tax to be a slush fund for any old transportation project. And that’s what’s happening.

So what is that transit tax being spent on? Here’s the list, via MoveMiamiDade:

  • Construction of NW 87th Avenue between NW 154th Street and Miami Gardens Drive (NW 183rd Street). This is “way out where nobody really lives,” according to Viciedo.
  • Constructing major ingress/egress improvements in downtown Miami, from SW 8th Street to SW First Avenue. This is basic resurfacing, but Viciedo says Florida DOT has been shirking their mandate to build bike lanes when they resurface streets, and she doesn’t expect that this one will be different.

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How Liberating Is Your Transit System? An Interview With Jarrett Walker

I first became aware of Jarrett Walker’s work through his blog, Human Transit, a few years ago. Here was someone writing about transit in a completely refreshing way, framing questions not in terms of mode or technology but through the prism of values and desires. To call Walker’s site a transit blog doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s about what we want from our cities, and how transit can help us get there. His 2011 book, Human Transit: How clearer thinking about public transit can enrich our communities and our lives, is a must-read if you’re interested in cities and want to understand what makes transit work well.

jarrett_walkerA transit planning consultant by trade whose clients literally span the globe, Walker will be in NYC next month to lead his two-day workshop in transit network design (as of press time, a few spaces are still available) and give a talk at the New School on the evening of February 6 (no registration required). When we first got in touch about doing an interview, he was about to leave for a gig in New Zealand for several weeks. A few days ago we caught up for a discussion that touched on transit on three continents, why simplicity matters in transit networks, and the legibility of New York City’s bus system.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell us a bit about what you were working on in New Zealand?

I have been working in New Zealand on and off for five years now. The main project that brings me down there over and over is a complete redesign of the bus system in Auckland. Working with my New Zealand colleagues from a firm called MR Cagney, I led workshops with Auckland transit staff that completely redesigned the network, with the goal of much higher ridership and much higher levels of freedom for almost everyone. Aucklanders will see that network rolling out over the next few years. And since then I’ve been back there several times to help them work on the details. There are lots of interesting details around what the buses do downtown and how that interacts with various people’s ideas about what downtown ought to be.

Does the Auckland bus system consist of what we’d call conventional lines and rapid lines, specifically BRT lines?

They have one very nice busway, they have a couple of old commuter rail lines that they’re in the process of turning into rapid transit lines. They have an extension of the rail line through the downtown in the works. But most of the system is bus routes, and the system has grown incrementally, because New Zealand had gone through this period of Thatcherite madness where they had privatized the whole bus system and essentially given over to private companies the right to run buses in particular areas, and had pretty much hollowed out the government role in planning transit service. And so for quite a while you’d see routes being designed by various local bus operators without caring very much about how they fit together into a network.

Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity.

This is the first time the entire city has been looked at as a single unit without regard to the historic bus operator boundaries. This is a very common issue in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. And Australia and New Zealand in particular are swinging back toward asserting strong government control over transit planning. Quite a different set of issues than we have in the states.

Do they run up against the problem where the current system has its own constituency? That’s a pretty big overhaul.

Absolutely. Lots of people who are used to having a bus at 7:32 right where they need it at their favorite bus stop may find that the bus stop is a little further way, but that’s part of the process of building frequency. You have to reduce the complexity, and you have to eliminate the things that only had historical justifications but don’t really make sense and aren’t generating ridership or coverage.

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Cuomo’s State of the State: More Highways, Less Dangerous Driving

If you were expecting Governor Cuomo’s transportation policy to match up with his socially progressive yet fiscally conservative reputation, he didn’t deliver during today’s State of the State address, which featured a ringing endorsement of a multi-billion dollar highway across rural areas near the Canadian border. While the governor’s focus on expensive highway projects, not transit, during the annual speech is by now a well-established pattern, today’s address did feature a few positive signs, including a continued push to increase penalties for drunk and distracted driving.

There is one significant transit project Cuomo did endorse: Penn Station Access, which would reroute New Haven Line Metro-North trains along the Amtrak route through the eastern Bronx, adding four new Metro-North stations in the borough. Although the MTA has been planning it for years, Cuomo’s inclusion of it in the State of the State bodes well for the project as the MTA gears up for its next five-year capital plan.

After the speech, Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed Cuomo’s interest in expanding Metro-North service in the Bronx. ”I appreciated his focus on mass transit,” he said. “For people in the eastern Bronx, this was music to their ears.”

As in last year’s State of the State, Cuomo also emphasized the importance of stormproofing the city’s subway to reduce the threat of flooding during major storms.

But the really big-ticket surface transportation project in Cuomo’s speech was a rural road boondoggle. He announced a push for a new interstate highway linking Interstate 81 in Watertown to Interstate 87 in Champlain, near the Canadian border. ”The proposed Route 98 could reduce travel time and speed up commerce,” he said. “We’ve been talking about it for years. Let’s get DOT to undertake a study and see if we can make this project happen.”

What Cuomo didn’t mention is that state DOT has already issued reports over the past 12 years on the plan, which could cost billions of dollars to build a full-fledged expressway across one of the state’s least-populated rural areas. Last February, Cuomo endorsed the interstate concept, while saying the project was too expensive for the state.

The multi-billion North Country expressway plan is like a rural version of the governor’s other gigantic, wasteful road project, the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, which received a few mentions from Cuomo today after taking center stage at last year’s State of the State. As with the expressway, Cuomo’s Tappan Zee message is mainly about showing voters that he can wield the state’s bureaucracy to build big projects. Good transportation policy has nothing to do with it.

Cuomo had some better ideas when it came to traffic enforcement, proposing stronger rules against texting teen drivers and repeat DWI offenders, building on previous efforts.

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A Conservative Utah Republican’s Path to Transit Enlightenment

Greg Hughes is the majority whip of the Utah State Legislature and the chair of its conservative caucus. He got a 100 percent score last year by the conservative Sutherland Institute, a Utah think tank. He also chairs the board of the Utah Transit Authority.

Utah state legislator Greg Hughes points to his daughter, sitting behind him, and says her generation wants to ride transit.

Utah state legislator Greg Hughes points to his daughter, sitting behind him, and says her generation wants to ride transit.

The man loves transit.

Hughes grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He said he always understood that public transportation has a place in a city of that size. In fact, he used it himself, as he didn’t have access to a car while he lived there. (Hughes attended college in Utah, so may not have been of driving age for much of his Pittsburgh residency.) But even at the time he joined the board of the UTA, he still thought transit didn’t make sense for Utah.

“As a conservative Republican, my opinion of mass transit was that it seemed reasonable — or a necessity — in Pittsburgh, but certainly in a state like Utah may be an over-subsidized social service,” he told members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Highways and Transit Subcommittee yesterday. “So I warned the mayors that if I was going to serve on this board they might not like what I had to say.”

He said he was able to bring a state official’s emphasis on fiscal conservatism to the board, but he also gained some valuable perspective:

[I] was able to understand a little bit better, in a state like Utah, where you see how quickly we’re growing, the absolute need we have to be multi-modal. When I sat every year and looked at how many roads we needed to keep in good repair, and how much expansion we needed for the population that was growing, I became agnostic in terms of mode.

It was fiscal conservatism itself that sold him on transit. Hughes just watched his state spend a billion dollars to expand a freeway, only to see that one of the $30 million interchanges is projected to be completely congested in six years. “How do we begin to pay for that, as a state?” he mused. “We have to have multi-modal.”

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Budget Deal Is Good News for Transit

The House of Representatives is preparing to vote on that rarest of Capitol Hill treasures — a bipartisan budget deal. If both houses approve the deal, negotiated by Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, it will be the first time since 2010 that Congress has passed a budget.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray have reached a budget deal the House is expected to pass today.

The deal would erase some sequester cuts and split the difference between the House budget of $967 billion and the Senate proposal’s $1.058 trillion number. The final budget would come in at $1.012 trillion.

The deal would bring the discretionary budget to about $491 billion. If the modest increases are applied evenly across all non-defense agencies, it would mean that the Transportation and HUD (THUD) budget would still suffer a $1.58 billion cut from 2013 levels, according to David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it’s $8 billion more than the House’s starvation bill of about $44 billion.

“This will allow all THUD programs to continue to operate with about a 2 percent cut from FY2013 levels,” Burwell said, “including TIGER, Amtrak, Transit New/Small Starts, etc.” A 2 percent cut starts to sound pretty good when you realize THUD was looking at a 7 percent cut before this deal materialized.

Given the fact that Senate Budget Committee chair, and co-author of this deal, Patty Murray also chairs the THUD Appropriations Subcommittee — and has “great affection” for the TIGER program, Burwell indulges the idea that “we may well get a strong TIGER in our stocking this Christmas, not a lump of coal.”

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Cuomo Administration in Absolutely No Rush to Provide Tappan Zee Transit

After the state dumped transit in its rush to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, Governor Cuomo announced a transit task force and promised to open the new bridge’s emergency shoulders to buses. But connections for bus riders on either side of the bridge remain a mystery, and the state continues to throw out overblown numbers as its task force is set to relegate land-side bus lanes to a study after the bridge opens in 2018.

Governor Cuomo made it an urgent priority to get shovels in the ground for the new, double-span Tappan Zee Bridge, but he’s shown no urgency to provide good transit options for the Hudson Valley. Photo: Angel Franco/Newsday

The state had previously pegged the cost of bus rapid transit at a lofty $5 billion, ignoring less expensive options and even factoring in unrelated car lanes to inflate the cost of BRT. But why stop at $5 billion? After a panel discussion at an American Planning Association conference on Friday, state DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald tossed around BRT cost estimates three to four times higher. “It shouldn’t be understated that coming up with 15 to 20 billion dollars to build those systems is a huge challenge,” she said. “It depends on how you define BRT.”

Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool challenged McDonald’s math. Tri-State has championed lower-cost solutions like bus lanes on I-287 and local streets, which both counties are interested in pursuing.

But even modest bus lanes on surface streets aren’t likely to get much attention from the state anytime soon. Vanterpool said the final report being prepared for the project’s transit task force will likely be released early next year and will recommend delaying a study of dedicated bus lanes until after the bridge opens in 2018. In the immediate future, the task force will focus on road efficiencies not specifically related to transit, like ramp meters, she said.

McDonald refused to discuss the task force recommendations. ”We’re in the final stages of our deliberations,” she said. “When the task force finalizes its deliberations, we’ll all be happy to discuss it.”

In the end, the future of transit in the region boils down to Andrew Cuomo. ”We’ve seen a commitment to building a bridge, but we’ve not yet seen a commitment to seeing that transit will be built in this corridor,” Vanterpool said. Tri-State is calling on the governor to commit to a timetable for implementing transit improvements and to appoint a second task force to oversee transit progress after the current group releases its recommendations.

On Friday, Tri-State is hosting a forum featuring BRT projects and experts from Cleveland, Connecticut, and elsewhere around the country. ”We want to show how it has been done in other states,” Vanterpool said.  ”It’s important to show the possibilities and when there’s vision and determination and commitment to a goal,” Vanterpool said. “We’ve not yet seen that with this project.”

There’s also the question of how the new bridge will be paid for. With a federal TIFIA loan all but certain, the governor is set to announce a toll and finance task force before the end of the year, according to Thruway Authority executive director Thomas J. Madison.

In its loan application, the Thruway Authority said the cost of the bridge could rise to $4.8 billion, significantly higher than the rosy recent estimates of $3.9 billion. The pricetag for the double-span, extra-wide bridge has raised alarm about the possibility that the project will need subsidies from the state budget — perhaps draining revenue from New York City transit. The state has recently been walking a fine line, trying to reassure drivers that the rest of the Thruway system won’t subsidize the Tappan Zee, and that Tappan Zee tolls won’t rise in the immediate future.

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As Deadline Approaches, Will Cuomo Sign or Veto Transit Lockbox Bill?

This afternoon, a coalition of more than 200 groups sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo [PDF] asking him to sign the transit lockbox bill, which would help safeguard dedicated transit funds by requiring the state to disclose the impact of any raids on transit agency budgets. The pressure is on: The governor has until the middle of next week to sign or veto the legislation.

Time is running out for Andrew Cuomo to stand for transparency and against transit raids. Photo: saebaryo/Flickr

The clock is ticking because although the bill unanimously passed both the Senate and Assembly in June, it was only officially called up to Cuomo’s desk on Friday, starting a review period that gives the governor until next Wednesday to make a decision.

In 2011, a similar bill that covered only the MTA passed the legislature but was gutted at the governor’s request during a special session late in the year. Advocates are hopeful that the new bill, which covers all transit agencies statewide, will benefit from a renewed public focus on transit investment after Hurricane Sandy — as well as broad support in both the legislature and among transit, business, labor, environmental, social justice, and good government organizations.

“We expect either a veto or a signature,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Nadine Lemmon said. ”As far as I know, he only has those two options.”

While only a constitutional amendment can expressly prohibit budget raids, the lockbox bill would add a measure of transparency so that the governor and legislature would have to say exactly what will happen to transit service as a result of their budget maneuvers. With the full costs known up front, advocates hope transit raids would become less common.

“I’ve had legislators say to me, ‘If I knew this bus line was going to be cut, I would’ve never voted for it,’” Lemmon said. “It’s like voting for stuff with a blindfold on.”

Lemmon credited labor groups for building strong support for the lockbox bill in the legislature and the New York City Council, and hoped that the business effects would get the governor’s attention. The coalition today specifically cited Kawasaki, Bombardier, Alstom, and Nova Bus manufacturing operations in New York state, which depend in large part on orders from transit agencies across the state.

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Government Shutdown to End, Leaving Transit Agencies to Pick Up the Pieces

Congratulations, gentle Congresspeople. You have come up with a deeply flawed solution to a problem only you would create. Never mind that it set up another showdown three months from now. The good news is the government shutdown is almost over, for the moment. More than 18,000 furloughed U.S. DOT officials can return to work.

Stoddard County, Missouri, was planning to take all 10 of its transit vehicles out of service today because the shutdown had dried up funds. Photo: Stoddard County Transit

While highway work continued practically uninterrupted and more than 24,000 air traffic controllers kept the skies safe, the shutdown halted funding reimbursements to local transit agencies from both federal and state entities. The North Carolina DOT’s public transportation division ceased operations entirely, furloughing 22 federally funded positions. Stoddard County, Missouri, planned to shut down its transit system today, threatening to lay off all seven of its drivers and strand many people who depend on the service. Nearby counties appeared to be on the brink of following suit.

In California, environmental reviews were stalled and project delivery times — which Congressional Republicans were dead set on accelerating with the last transportation bill — were extended.

In Hampton Roads, Virginia, two transit expansion studies were halted due to the hold-up of federal support.

Moody’s Investors Service declared GARVEE bonds, issued to help fund transit, to be the single most vulnerable kind of debt in the shutdown. The name, after all, is an acronym for “Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles” — and if you can’t anticipate any revenue from federal grants, you’re kind of screwed.

As the shutdown hit, it also sent FTA employees home early from the American Public Transportation Association’s annual meeting in Chicago. Many had gone there hoping to maximize their time with transit officials from around the country, since the sequester had slashed the agency’s travel budget and they don’t get to have as many face-to-face meetings as they used to. FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff called the shutdown “maddening,” “demoralizing,” “insulting,” and “unnecessary.”

It’s unclear when furloughed employees will return to work.

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Bus Time Went Live in Manhattan This Morning

Bus Time is now operational for Manhattan buses. The service, already in the Bronx and Staten Island, is planned for Queens and Brooklyn within six months. Image: MTA

After signs went up in subway stations last week, the MTA made it official this morning: real-time bus tracking is now available for all Manhattan buses, joining Staten Island and the Bronx, with Queens and Brooklyn to come online within six months.

Bus Time for Manhattan buses appeared shortly after midnight last night, adding 36 routes and 1,800 bus stops to the program. Bronx and Staten Island buses that have portions of their routes in Manhattan are already equipped with the tracking technology, which was developed in part by OpenPlans, Streetsblog’s parent organization.

As of today, the MTA says there are 2,852 buses in its fleet with the GPS devices, serving 6,000 bus stops in the three boroughs with Bus Time.

Real-time tracking information — which tells users how many stops or miles away a bus is, instead of calculating a countdown estimate — is available online and on phones via app, text message, or scannable QR code at each bus stop.

While Bus Time allows users to track their buses, some council members want real-time information to go one step further and are calling for the city to rewrite its bus shelter contract to include countdown clocks for buses, like those in some subway stations, so riders can get service information without checking their phones.

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MTA Plans Busway Beneath the M Train in Ridgewood

The MTA is working on a plan for a short busway in Ridgewood that would run for six-tenths of a mile beneath the elevated M tracks, between Fresh Pond Road and Palmetto Street. While the project wouldn’t transform a car-choked traffic sewer into a pedestrian-friendly transit boulevard (the right-of-way is currently a series of weed-strewn parking lots), it could be NYC’s first new separated busway since the Fulton Mall opened in the 1970s.

The western end of the Ridgewood Busway route, beneath the elevated M train at Onderdonk Avenue. Photo: Google Maps

The busway would have one lane in each direction and three bus stops. (Overhead, the M train stops at Fresh Pond Road, Forest Avenue, and Seneca Avenue.)

In its recently-released 20-Year Capital Needs Assessment [PDF], the MTA said the busway, which leads directly to the Fresh Pond bus depot, ”will reduce travel times and reduce operating costs for several bus routes.” The MTA says the project would save approximately $1 million in operating costs annually.

Buses currently running east-west in the area are the Q58, B13, and B20, which carry a combined 41,428 passengers on an average weekday. Slightly more than two-thirds of that ridership is on the Q58.

Engineering and planning firm Parsons Brinckerhoff performed a conceptual engineering study for the busway in 2012. The project, included in the regional transportation funding plan approved last month by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council [PDF], would be funded by $11.64 million from the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program and $2.91 million in matching funds from the MTA scheduled for Fiscal Year 2015. The total project cost is between $12.5 and $19 million; the MTA says the cost has not been finalized and that it has not yet made a decision on whether to proceed with the project.

New York has no bus routes where cars can’t intrude and slow down transit riders. A DOT plan to build a separated busway on 34th Street was scuttled in 2011, resulting in a more modest plan to improve the M34 SBS route. The MTA has proposed a busway along an elevated railroad track on Staten Island’s north shore, but the Ridgewood project looks like it could be up and running first. While it won’t set a precedent for carving a separated busway out of car lanes, it would help show how quickly, smoothly, and reliably buses can run when traffic doesn’t get in the way.